As some of you know, in November 2009, I presented my Honors research at Philadelphia Biblical University in a lecture entitled, YHWH’s Cult Statues: ‘Image of God’ in an Ancient Near Eastern Context.  For quite some time, I have wanted to flesh out that paper a little more, critique it, and provide further elaboration and support for some of my arguments.  I make a number of rather bold claims for which I wish to provide more historical evidence.

Blogging always helps me to get my thoughts out, so I thought it might behoove  me to post the text of the lecture (so you’ll know what I am talking about) and then, in subsequent posts, address some of the issues in more specific detail.  I will be posting the lecture in two segments, as it is rather long.  Also, if you would like to follow this discussion, you may want to look at two blog posts which I wrote on my brother’s blog ( last summer, which can be accessed here:

There is a good bit of overlap between the lecture and the blog posts, but the blogs are more a summary of my thoughts and discussion of the  implications, while the lecture presents a bit more of the evidence.

YHWH’s Cult Statues: ‘Image of God’ in an Ancient Near Eastern Context

By Rebekah Devine ©2010

Thank you.  It’s an honor and delight to speak to you today and to have the opportunity to present on the topic that has held my attention for quite some time: namely, the significance of the term, “Image of God,” in an ancient Near Eastern context.  Amongst Christians today this phrase, “Image of God,” gets tossed around quite a bit and it has also been the focus of much scholarship on biblical anthropology.  It’s a fairly well-known part of the Genesis Creation story in which God fashions the earth and then forms humans in His image and sets them in the Garden of Eden to cultivate and care for the earth.  Later on, in Genesis 9, God tells Noah and his sons that He will require a reckoning for the spilling of human blood, for humankind is made in His image (Gen. 9:6).  So it seems as though the idea that humans are created in the image of God is very significant to an understanding of a biblical anthropology.

There is quite a bit of debate over what precisely this phrase means, however.  Interpretations of its meaning come in many varieties, ranging from the detailed expositions found in great scholarly tomes to the brief treatises found in the popular reading section of your local Christian bookstore.  Some have used it to assert that humans have innate, individual worth as God’s images, while others have argued, further, that the term also refers to the kingly role given to humans in the Genesis creation story.  It has also been suggested that, “Image of God,” is used to denote the human role as the proverbial “offspring” of God, for the writer of Genesis 5:3 says that the first human, Adam, “…became the father of a son in his likeness, according to his image” – in essence, the “image” is the child and heir of the person after whom it is fashioned.

These interpretations are certainly not mutually exclusive and may all be correct in some regard.  However, I want to suggest to you that the phrase “Image of God” in an ancient Near Eastern context had perhaps a more specific and complex meaning than these.  Our Western concept of “image” is very influenced by Greek post-Platonic thought which is virtually foreign to Eastern thought and I believe this may have hindered us from viewing biblical anthropology in the Eastern context in which the Hebrew Bible was written.  It must be asked: When ancient Near Eastern peoples heard the phrase, “Image of god,” what did it mean to them?  What were the images of their deities like and how were these images used?

My goal for this evening is three-fold.  I want to introduce you to a specific kind of religious image known in the ANE (the Mesopotamian cult statue) and discuss how it functioned in Mesopotamian temples as a representation of the deity it depicted.  I will then draw parallels between the Mesopotamian cult image and humans as the “Images of God” in the Genesis Creation story.  Then, I would like to discuss how this concept of “image” might influence our understanding of the human being’s relationship to God and to other humans.

Let me give you a bit of background on ancient Mesopotamia.  Most of you are somewhat familiar with the ancient Israelites, but they were not the only people living in the region of Mesopotamia.  Ancient Mesopotamia, which largely corresponds to modern-day Iraq as well as northeastern Syria and parts of southeastern Turkey, boasted a number of other peoples including the Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian empires.  These nations worshipped many gods and thus the monotheism of the Israelites stood out against the polytheism of the surrounding peoples.  What also made the Israelites unique was that their one God, YHWH, prohibited them from making graven images to represent Him.  While other ancient Near Eastern peoples depicted their gods through a variety of theriomorphic (that, images of animals) and anthropomorphic images, the Israelites were commanded, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Exod. 20:4).  W.W. Hallo suggests that this command was given to the Israelites because humans were created in the image of YHWH and thus humans serve as the only appropriate form of divine representation.  Hallo writes:

All that we know of the biblical image of God (selem elohim) is that man was created according to it or in imitation of it (bidemut elohim), and that the prohibition enshrined in the Second Commandment…was presumably intended to discourage all experimentation to arrive at a more precision depiction of the deity. (Hallo 1983:2)

In other words: the purpose of this command against making graven images was to show that the God of Israel is not like other deities and is not represented in the same way.  He needs no cult image made of wood, metal or stone because humanity is His image, His “anthropomorphic” representation, His living image.  Humans are, in a sense, YHWH’s living, breathing cult statues.  In order to better understand the relationship of YHWH God to His living images, then, we must ask: What was the relationship of Mesopotamian deities to their images of wood and stone?

So what is a Mesopotamian cult statue?

Gudea of Lagash

This photograph actually does not depict the cult statue of a deity; it is a cult image of a deified ruler named Gudea of Lagash.  Although the rituals performed on this particular statue were similar to those performed on images of deities, this is not an actual cult image of a deity per se.  I’m using this as a visual because, to my knowledge, no actual cult statues of Mesopotamian deities have been found in the archeological record because of the materials out of which they were made.  We know about cult statues of deities from texts and also from pictures of them on walls and roll seals.  Those cult statues were made out of wood and covered in precious metals – this image of Gudea is made of stone.

These cult statues occupied a special place in Mesopotamian temples.  What is perhaps most important to understand for our purposes here is that temple was not viewed as simply a place where worshippers went to make requests or give offerings to a god who lived elsewhere.  The temple was viewed as the actual house of the god.  Embodied in the cult statue through various rituals, the god took up residence in the temple, ensuring that the land would thrive on account of the god’s move into the community.  The cult statue of the deity was usually centrally located in the innermost part of the temple within an inner sanctuary called the “holy of holies” or “cella” (Wightman 2007:938).  (If you are familiar with the ancient Israelite tabernacle and temple, you know that this is the room in which the Ark of the Covenant was kept.)  Inside the holy of holies in the Mesopotamian temple, the cult image was placed on a bench or altar.  It was from this seat in the holy of holies that the god exercised his rule over the land; a rule that was mediated through the cult state.  Although the god was not limited to the statue, the statue was the merging point between human and divine space and it was through the cult image that humans interacted with their gods.  What was done to the image was considered to be done to the deity; the destiny of the image was directly related to the destiny of the deity.

Now, this particular understanding of the function of the Mesopotamian cult statue which I have just presented is the subject of much debate.  Some scholars, such as R.E. Friedman, view the function of cult statues as similar to that of icons in a church.  He says that the statue reminded the worshippers of the deity it depicted, inspired respect in worshippers and made them feel closer to their gods and goddesses (Dick 1996:111).  Friedman gives very little evidence for this assertion, however, saying only that Babylonian texts assert that the statue was not the god (Friedman 1988:35).  He therefore assumes that the statue must function in an iconic sense.  This is, I think, an example of how our concept of “image” has been influenced by post-Platonic dualism.  Often, when we think of an “image,” we conceive of it in an iconic sense.  By this, I mean that we view an “image” as a symbol that points to something beyond itself.   For example, if I have a drawing or photograph of my mother, I do not consider my mother to actually be present in the image.   The image reminds me of her – it may give me an idea of what she looks like and I can use it as a visual to help me remember to pray for her.  The photograph is a representation of her, but I do not encounter her in the photograph – the photo has no share in the reality of my mother.  If you are at all familiar with Eastern Orthodox iconography, you know that icons are supposed to function similarly.  Icons of Jesus are not thought to manifest the actual presence of the divine Jesus.  Rather, the icon serves as a conduit to pray to Jesus who is elsewhere – the reality of Christ is not in the icon but is somewhere beyond the icon.  This is essentially how Friedman believes the Mesopotamian cult statue functioned: the worshippers gazed at it and it reminded them of the deity whose reality was somewhere beyond the icon.  E.M. Curtis, however, views this as insufficient, saying that the Mesopotamians believed the deity to be actually present in the statue and that “the significance of the statue lay in the fact that this was a place where in a unique – though not exclusive – way the deity manifested himself or herself and was present” (Dick 1996:111).

There is divergence of opinion about the nature of the cult statue even amongst scholars who believe that the deity was actually present through the cult image.  Thorkild Jacobsen is quick to assert that the cult statue should not be viewed as a sort of “vessel” into which the deity poured its specific divine content, nor as a body with a god incarnate in it.  Rather, the material elements of the cult statue were somehow transformed, or transubstantiated, to become the god it represented.  Jacobsen writes, “We must think, rather, in terms of a purely mystic unity, the statue mystically becoming what it represents, the god without, however, in any way limiting the god, who remains transcendent” (Jacobsen 1987:22-23).  Further, Jacobsen argues, it was not as though the cult statue, in becoming the god, ceased to be the cult image; the cult statue simultaneously was and was not the god.

This view appears contradictory to modern, dualistic thinkers who view the world in terms of two intersecting realms: tangible and intangible, material and spiritual (Jacobsen 1987:18), however, it must be owned that this tension is present in ancient Near Eastern texts.  To the ancient Near Eastern mind, it was not a contradiction to say that the cult statue and deity were two distinct beings while at the same time to say that they were bound together in a mystical unity in such a way that the cult image simultaneously was and was not the god it represented.  Often what was done to the cult statue was said to be done to the deity.  In Mesopotamian religion, the offerings were not placed before the statue of the deity, but the deity itself, for the statue, some scholars argue, was the living embodiment of the god and thus the god was the reality, not the statue (Walker and Dick 2001:6).  In the Erra Epic, for example, when the statue of the Babylonian god Marduk becomes covered with soot and its clothing becomes dilapidated, this is considered the fate not of the statue alone, but of Marduk himself.  “The Erra Epic makes it clear that if a statue’s appearance corrupts, then the deity can abandon his image.  Erra reassures Marduk that he shall rule in his stead while Marduk leaves while his statue is being restored” (Walker and Dick 2001:7).  Similarly, as is known from Marduk’s Ordeal, when Sennacherib kidnapped the Marduk statue from Babylon in 689 BCE in reality, it marked the exile of the god Marduk in Assyria (Walker and Dick 2001:7).

The debate about the nature of the cult image and its relationship to the deity is difficult to resolve, for, as Walker and Dick point out, evidence on how the deity was identified with its statue does not yield consistent results.  In some cases, such as Assurbanipal’s destruction of the temples and statues of Elamite Susa, the demise of the cult statue meant not only the abandonment of the statue by the deity, but the proverbial “homelessness” of the deity when it left the cult image.  The gods became like disembodied spirits (Walker and Dick 2001:7).

I would like to highlight this idea of “image abandonment” because it will have bearing on our discussion of the Creation story in Genesis and Adam and Eve as the first images of YHWH God.  If the Mesopotamian temple was ransacked and the cult statues seized as booty, it was thought that the deity then abandoned its image because of the image’s impurities.  When these statues of the god were recaptured, they had to be repaired, ritually cleansed and reinstalled in the temple.  A time of mourning took place as the image was repaired.  The priest, king and the whole community lamented the proverbial “death” of the cult image, for the death of the image meant that the god, too, had died.  If the statue was successfully restored, it once again underwent the rituals of mouth-washing (mis pi) and mouth-opening (pit pi).  The god was then escorted to its house in order to take up residence once again.  There was then a time of rejoicing, for this resurrection of the cult statue was thought of as the resurrection of the god.

Stay tuned for Part 2…


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